Revolutionary Measures

Social media, news and (mis)information

How people get their news – and how reliable it is – has been a hot topic since before the US election. And this week the debate intensified, particularly around the role of social media in acting as a gatekeeper between their users and news sources.

Firstly, Facebook began an experiment in six countries where it has removed unpaid news posts from the main feed and put them in another tab. This has decimated traffic to news websites, with one journalist claiming that it reduced click throughs by 75%. Facebook says that there are currently no plans to extend the trial, but given the amount of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) that the social media giant provides to newspapers, they are increasingly concerned about the impact on their business models.

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Secondly, investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the US election continue, with Google, Twitter and Facebook all being questioned at hearings later this week. Ahead of this Facebook announced that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian trolls, while Google has found 18 YouTube channels used to spread disinformation and Twitter has highlighted 2,700 accounts with dubious Russian links.

Both of these stories demonstrate the growing power of social media and the issues that this brings to the press, democracy and individuals. Essentially it boils down to three areas:

1.The dangers of other people’s platforms
Unlike the telephone or post, social media platforms are not intrinsically open and don’t have a public service element. Therefore, Facebook is perfectly within its legal rights to change how it displays third party information, such as news, or even if it displays it at all. Therefore while media companies have become increasingly reliant on Facebook, it isn’t a balanced (or even contractual) relationship. This shows the danger of building a business on someone else’s platform – it is essentially the online equivalent of running a company from premises where you haven’t signed a lease. You can be thrown out at any time, without redress.

2.Black box algorithms
Serving up relevant content that will appeal to users is what Facebook and Google is all about. But how they do this is increasingly complex, involving the analysis of huge amounts of data with proprietary algorithms that are central to their business. As the events of the US election show, it is possible to manipulate or trick these to deliver particular content to targeted users, not just through ads, but in other ways. This obviously goes beyond the normal social media echo chambers that we all tend to sit in, by providing fake content that is likely to appeal to our own positions and biases. Expect the US congressional hearings to call for greater clarity and oversight of the algorithms behind social media platforms, rather than the current black box system. That brings its own issues – it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were complaining about alleged pro-Democrat bias on Facebook.

3. Follow the money
In many ways the news industry has never been healthier – given the current state of turmoil in the world, more people want to know what’s going on. However, while that is good news for individual journalists, it isn’t necessarily good for media businesses as they increasingly give away their content for free and rely on online advertising that brings in much less per impression than traditional print ads. Therefore, cutting traffic to their sites as Facebook’s experiment seems to do removes one of their sources of income, just when they need it most. While the likes of Google have invested in projects to help the media, particularly local newspapers, it doesn’t fill the funding gap that they currently face.

It is difficult to see how both newspapers and social media can move forward and tackle these challenges. Government regulation would be seen as heavy-handed and potentially lead to accusations of bias on the choice and positioning of news, while the social media giants are unlikely to make public the algorithms that their businesses are built on. However, for the wider good in terms of informing the public, something needs to be done.

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November 1, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment